Our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment?

Pearl Harbor and 9/11 tragedies have nothing to do with the coronavirus crisis, which is basically self-inflicted

This is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment, only it’s not going to be localized, it’s going to be happening all over the country and I want America to understand that. I want Americans to understand that as hard as this week is going to be, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jerome Adams, Surgeon General of the United States, Member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force

This weekend struck hard. The pessimistic views the American leadership expressed regarding the ongoing coronavirus crisis in the country came to prepare the public. Up until now, the death toll is at 10,490. The 356,414 reported cases constitute the highest number of coronavirus cases globally. This week will mark the peak of the outbreak and, consequently, the number of US deaths. Speaking of human lives lost, combining the victims of Pearl Harbor (2,335) and 9/11 (2,977) attacks won’t even reach the current number of coronavirus deaths.

Vice Admiral Adams used those two regrettable American tragedies as an example of thousands of lives lost during a crisis, underlining the importance of the current situation. As far as one can see though, that is the only common characteristic between them and the coronavirus crisis.

It was December 7, 1941, when Japan launched a surprise attack in the Pearl Harbor US naval base near Honolulu, Hawaii. Imperial Japan aimed to destroy the American naval power in the Pacific for preventive reasons. Southeast Asia was a critical field for them to control. The attack marked the entry of the USA, which was neutral until then, into the WWII jumble.

From 1941, the USA never suffered a military attack again on its soil. But this reality was crumbled on September 11, 2001. Al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four airliners and crashed two of them into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. This terrorist attack was one of the most unprecedented events in history and changed the world forever.

On the other hand, global pandemics are not “surprise attacks” nor “unprecedented events” 

Yes, of course, a virus outbreak can catch you by surprise. But this is not the case for the novel coronavirus, nor there is a global-scale war situation or the same risk assessment mechanisms states used to follow 80 years ago. Donald Trump was notified about the outbreak in China as early as January 3. The fate of viruses, if are not contained, is certainly not unprecedented either. Only recently the USA encountered the swine flu pandemic. Overall, it’s not a question of “if” but questions of “when” and “how” the public health dangers will be encountered.

It was January 18 when POTUS Trump dismissed the warning of Health Secretary Alex Azar as “alarmist”, amidst impeachment. The US risk assessment mechanisms were fast to identify the potential danger of the novel coronavirus, which at that time was already spreading to hundreds of citizens in Hubei, China, as well as taking the first lives.

Donald Trump was focused on his upcoming presidential election image. It was important that he presented himself as a “survivor” of an establishment “war” against him.

It was January 21 when the first US coronavirus case was confirmed and January 24 the second. Both cases were considered to be travel-related and screening started to be implemented in airports. It is usual for states to take security measures only after the security breach but this is an issue for a completely different discussion.

At that time, Donald Trump stated that he remained in contact with China and labeled the US stance as “strongly on watch”, offering the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, “any help that is necessary”. As it seemed, these moves were only formal courtesies. The global coronavirus death toll up until then was at 81.

Right after WHO declared the novel coronavirus as a global health emergency, the USA imposed travel restrictions from mainland China on January 31. The White House Coronavirus Task Force had already been established a few days ago.

February is a significant month in order to be understood how the USA transformation from a controllable condition to an “our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment” situation occurred.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) started developing tests, which were distributed across the country, in order to identify the number of novel coronavirus cases. At the same time, tests from the WHO were also developed and distributed in labs around the world. But CDC decided to stick with its own testing that soon discovered to be flawed. Large scale US testing was halted or proved to be producing plasmatic results, as the reported novel coronavirus US cases were extremely low (59 by February 27).

Again, Donald Trump was focused on his upcoming presidential elections image stating that the virus “will go away soon” and the US response to the situation remained on hand. Halting economic activities in the USA would be a great cost for a POTUS that constantly promotes his administration’s economic achievements. The global coronavirus death toll up until then was at 2,762.

Only by the end of this critical month CDC testing considered to be a failure. Testing criteria widened, as well as the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allowed non-approved tests. Right after this policy shifting, the first US coronavirus death was reported. POTUS’ (political) move was to restrict travel from Iran, which had more than 500 cases already.

From March 5 to March 11, the confirmed US coronavirus cases jumped from 100 to 1,000 respectively. This is indicative of the false February assumptions on the number of confirmed cases, as well as the absence of social distancing measures. Donald Trump’s next (political) move was to ban EU travels but not from the UK, which enforced then a “herd immunity” approach, a decision that he recalled later. A few days after, a US national emergency was imposed. Up until then, there were 1,666 confirmed US cases and 41 deaths.

By March 26, the USA was the most plagued coronavirus country in the world with 81,321 confirmed cases.

The upcoming tragedy was already quite visible

Trump administration also jumped from just the Wuhan/”Chinese” Virus to “our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment” really quickly. To demonize an “enemy of the state” with ethnonational characteristics is essential to put the blame on anyone but yourself. To sympathize with the nation commemorating some other major tragedies is also essential to inspire awe towards the situation.

But if we examine the whole story holistically, there is no one else to blame or empathize with other than the US federal government, and especially Donald Trump. At first, re-election and micropolitics were much more important than policy-making against a potential threat. Then, preserving the economy as a presidential asset instead of focusing on the CDC capabilities seemed a much more viable option. Finally, every aspect that tried to be avoided, especially halting economic activities through social distancing measures, was eventually implemented, while, at the same time, the country leads the world in coronavirus cases and deaths.

This is not “our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment”. During these moments the USA responded drastically to unknown, up until then, threats. The coronavirus outbreak is not only a well-known threat (at least in terms of pandemic management), but also the US response to it was late at best and contemptuous at worst. The coronavirus crisis cannot be an analogy to these two crucial historical moments.

But if we want to compare tragedies by the numbers, Jerome Adams should have better labeled this moment as “our WWI moment” (53,000 US deaths) or “our WWII moment” (291,000 US deaths). That is much more accurate, and much more macabre, for the future of coronavirus pandemic in the USA in the following weeks.

Damage is done. The government failed to provide the necessary security to its citizens and this needs to be acknowledged. Hopes and prayers that all of the above are false and this analytical peace is just bias towards the Trump administration.

(The majority of the information used to write this article was drawn by “The federal government’s coronavirus response” report by Brookings)